A Nasty Anecdote

One of the most memorable episodes from Don Quixote, one which in fact I blogged about in this space a few years ago, involves Quixote’s visit to a farm.  He and Sancho happen upon a peasant being abused by his overseer.  The peasant describes a tale of woe to Quixote; Quixote in exchange offers to avenge his injustice.  The peasant begs him not to, intuiting that no good can come of this strange man’s efforts.  Nonetheless, Quixote decides the best thing to do is spring valiantly to the peasant’s aid.  He sallies forth, indicting the overseer with various oaths and threats, and then, having extracted a promise from the landlord that he will desist from such abuse in the future, Quixote and Sancho Panza ride off into the sunset.  As soon as they are gone, the overseer punishes the peasant with twice as much ferocity as before; he nearly dies from the whipping he receives.

At the time I read it, I was moved by the allegorical perfection of this episode.  George W. Bush’s various attempts at “sallying forth” all seemed to bear the same structure: some phenomenon in the world becomes an opportunity for sallying forth, a place to show one’s moral rectitude, without having any sort of nuanced feel for the situation.  Temporary victory, followed by long-term counterproductive consequences result:  9/11 and Afghanistan, WMD’s and Iraq, low test scores and No Child Left Behind all follow the same sad and vainglorious pattern – Quixote could just as well have flown a “Mission Accomplished” banner off Rocinante’s hindquarters.

Dostoevsky’s 1862 tragicomic long-ish short story, “A Nasty Anecdote” (also translated “An Unpleasant Predicament, “A Silly Story,” and “A Nasty Tale” – I read a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, in their collection The Eternal Husband and Other Stories) strikes me as similarly Quixotic, mutatis mutandis.  A young, apparently liberal-minded general in the civil service has dinner with two older gentlemen of equivalent rank.  One of them is an apolitical careerist who’s finally made it, purchased a house and many fine furnishings; the other is a more crassly retrograde ideologue whose wardrobe is conspicuously de classe.  The story is told from the 3rd-person limited perspective of this young general, Ivan Illych Pralinsky (no relation to the Tolstoyan character of similar name – but with intentional overtones of pralines, according to Frank).  After this dinner, at which Ivan has tried a couple of times, in vain, to engage his more conservative interlocutors in political argument, he is frustrated.  He wants desperately to prove his liberal bona fides, and his “humaneness” and is more than a little drunk.

When he emerges from the meal, Ivan discovers that his coachman (and coach) are gone.  The other servants tell Ivan he’s gone off to a cousin’s wedding, and assured them he’d be back in time to pick up his master.  Since he hasn’t returned, Ivan decides to sally forth into St. Petersburg, thinking he’ll find the servant at the wedding, and make merry with him and his people.  Ivan fails to discover this wedding, but stumbles upon another: a policeman tells him that inside a nearby house is the wedding of one preposterously named Pseldonymov (a few letters away from the Russian for “pseudonym”).  Pseldonymov, Ivan quickly realizes, is one of his subordinates.  He doesn’t really know him, but he recognizes the name, and thinks, what better way to demonstrate his liberalism than to crash the wedding?  He thinks he’ll be a modern-day Harun-al-Rashid (21).  Al-Rashid, as a footnote told me, is a legendary Arabic king known for making surprise visits to his subjects; of course all the stories end up demonstrating what a kind-hearted and benevolent ruler he is.  Kind of like Undercover Boss.  Ivan decides he’ll stop in, say some magnanimous words, even draw the new bride into conversation, and ingratiate himself to all involved forever.

Anyway, things go horribly.  In a scene (and a style) reminiscent of D’s earlier the Double, Ivan gets obscenely drunk.  What really sets him over the edge is a switch from champagne to vodka – as Frank notes, a shift from upper- to lower-class drink.  Much of this part of the story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Ivan, though in the 3rd person.  In fact, D writes, anticipating Joyce by something like 50 years, the following:

As he went on recollecting, he fell to thinking more and more.  It is known that whole trains of thought sometimes pass instantly through our heads, in the form of certain feelings, without translation into human language, still less literary language.  But we shall attempt to translate all these feelings of our hero’s and present the reader if only with the essence of these feelings, with what, so to speak, was most necessary and plausible in them.  Because many of our feelings, when translated into ordinary language, will seem perfectly implausible.  That is why they never come into the world, and yet everybody has them.  Naturally, Ivan Ilyich’s feelings and thoughts were a bit incoherent.  But you know the reason why (13-14).

(As an aside- it’s interesting that drunkenness plays a vital role in D’s justification of the adoption of this style – obviously Joyce had his own problems with alcohol, even if Leopold Bloom never touches the stuff…)

Maybe it’s just that I’m reading it in translation, but I get the sense that D still respects to integrity of full sentences, and avoids showcasing his protagonists more idiosyncratic thoughts (there’s no “Plumtree’s Potted Meat” or “U.P. Up”,  and so on).  It’s not quite “stream-of-consciousness”, but it’s clearly not Tolstoyan omniscient realism either.  D uses this style to what seems to be to be a sociopolitical effect.  The entire first half of the story is told from the rambling, drunken and self-obsessed style of the petty-aristocratic Ivan Ilyich.  He repeatedly reassures himself as to the moral rectitude of his purposes, even as all the drinks and food are placed before him.  He meets Pseldonymov’s wife, his mother, and his fellow civil servant Akim Petrovich, who takes it upon himself to manage Ivan’s drunkenness and self-absorption.

We learn about the Akim Petrovich, at least from Ivan’s perspective – he’s a new character type for D, it seems to me – the urbane but amoral Petersburg denizen – he sounds a lot like a stereotypical present-day, not “real American” New Yorker:

He came from Petersburg Russians…  They are a totally special type of Russian people.  They have scarcely the faintest notion of Russia, and that does not trouble them at all.  Their whole interest is confined to Petersburg and, above all, to the place where they serve.  All their cares are concentrated around penny preference, grocery shop, and monthly salary.  They do not know even a single Russian song, except “Luchinushka” and that only because barrel organs play it (35).

As with any drunken escapade, Ivan does have fleeting glimpses of how ridiculous he is; this comes out also in the form of paranoia, like you sometimes feel in dreams:

Akim Petrovich, though he had been drinking, sat all the same as if he were in shock.  Ivan Ilyich now realized that, for almost a quarter of an hour already, he had been telling him about some most interesting topic, but that Akim Petrovich, while listening to him, was as if not only embarrassed, but even afraid of something.  Pseldonymov, who was sitting two chairs away, also kept stretching his neck toward him, his head inclined to one side, listening with a most disagreeable air.  He actually was as if keeping watch on him.  Glancing around at the guests, he saw that many were looking straight at him and guffawing.  But the strangest thing of all was that this did not embarrass him in the least; on the contrary, he sipped once more from his glass and suddenly started speaking for all to hear (44).

But it is only when the perspective of the story changes that it becomes clear this is a tragicomic story – Ivan’s perspectival control of the story ends with a splat:

This happens to non-drinkers when they accidentally get drunk.  To the last stroke, to the last instant they remain conscious, and then suddenly fall as if cut down.  Ivan Ilyich lay on the floor, having lost all consciousness.  Pseldonymov seized himself by the hair and froze in that position.  The guests hastily began to depart, each discussing in his own way what had happened.  It was about three o’clock in the morning.

The story then shifts to a sort of omniscience, or perhaps just now from the limited perspective of Pseldonymov:

The main thing was that Pseldonymov’s situation was much worse than could have been imagined, quite apart from the whole attractiveness of the present circumstances.  And while Ivan Ilyich is lying on the floor, with Pseldonymov standing over him, desperately tugging himself by the hair, let us interrupt the chosen current of our story and give a few words of explanation about Porfiry Petrovich Pseldonymov himself (49-50).

It turns out he’s from an exceedingly poor family who has spent nearly all they have to make a nice wedding.  When Ivan showed up, in fact, they were all stricken with a dreadful fear that they could not accommodate his expensive tastes, but they also felt desperately obligated to do so.  Someone had rushed out and bought an expensive bottle of champagne they could not afford (the one we’ve earlier seen Ivan drinking).  Later, to deal with the passed-out Ivan, they summon a cab that no one has the money to pay for, and he ultimately doesn’t get in, and they still have to pay the cab driver.  They are only two good beds in the whole place, one of which has been newly purchased for the bride and groom.  They arrange to allow Ivan Ilyich to sleep on it, and the newlywed couple ends up trying to construct a bed out of two chairs that slip apart while the bride sleeps.  Pseldonymov’s mother upbraids him for providing his bride with this unfortunate wedding night.

In short – Ivan’s almost-stream-of-consciousness is revealed for having totally misunderstood the situation into which he had walked, but only in his drunken oblivion is this revealed to the reader.  One can presume that Ivan Ilyich never learns any of this.  But just when you think you’ve sort of figured out the narrative rules here, the narrator writes (describing the rest of the evening) “How it ended, I do not know in detail” (58).  So it’s not an omniscient narrator, not a stream of Ivan Ilyich’s consciousness, not a tale told by Pseldonymov – so what is it?  This too is left unanswered.

The story ends with a slightly more uplifting denouement: Ivan awakes to being cared for by Pseldonymov’s mother-in-law.  She insists upon washing him and returning him home in a decent state:

And at that moment Ivan Ilyich realized that if there was at least one being in the whole world of whom he now could neither be ashamed nor afraid, it was precisely this old woman.  He washed himself.  And for a long time afterward, in difficult moments of his life, he recalled, amid other pangs of conscience, all the circumstances of this awakening, this earthenware bowl with the faience washstand, filled with cold water in which pieces of ice still floated, and the soap in its pink wrapper, of an oval shape, with some letters stamped on it, fifteen kopecks’ worth, obviously bought for the newlyweds, but of which Ivan Ilyich was to be the first used; and the old woman with the damask towel on her left shoulder.  The cold water refreshed him, he dried himself off and, without saying a word, not even thanking his sister of mercy, seized his hat, took on his shoulders the fur coat held for him by Mrs. Pseldonymov, and through the corridors, through the kitchen, where the cat was already miaowing and the cook, raising herself on her pallet, gazed after him with greedy curiosity, ran out of the courtyard, to the street, and rushed for a passing cab.  The morning was frosty, a chilled yellowish fog still enveloped the houses and all objects.  Ivan Ilyich turned up his collar.  He tought that everyone was watching him, that everyone knew him, that everyone recognized him… (63)

He’s still self-obsessed, and still doesn’t thank anyone for the humane treatment he receives, but the point seems clear: Ivan talks about “humaneness” and “liberalism” – the people of Pseldonymov’s household actually practice it, even at great, indeed impossible expense.  Or is their seeming “humaneness” really just the manifestation fear of judgment and condemnation (and the possible firing of Pseldonymov) by the upper classes?

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One Response to A Nasty Anecdote

  1. Nates says:

    It’s interesting that Dostoevsky does the Joycean train-of-thought stuff indirectly from the third-person perspective. I guess it’s proto-Joycean.

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